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7 Subtle Signs of a Bad Manager & How to Deal With it

7 Subtle Signs of a Bad Manager & How to Deal With it

bad manager

Subtle signs of a bad manager are incredibly hard to spot even though you feel the daily effects. It can cause you to doubt your ability in your craft and your sanity. Having over 10 years in human resources working with these managers and their employees gives me incredible insight into how to navigate these situations. This post dives into how to identify what these managers look like in your day-to-day and steps you can make to protect your well-being and career. 

signs of a bad manager
Signs of a bad manager

Your manager has the ability to make your work experience amazing or amazingly atrocious. I’ve seen it countless times where I talk with an employee and they explain awkward and off-putting interactions with their manager. These subtle signs of a bad manager doesn’t usually live with just one employee, they often are repeated experiences with other people. You probably heard the colloquialism that people quit bad managers, not the company—which after doing innumerable exit interviews, I’m inclined to agree. Your manager is often the person who delegates your work, sets the tone and pace for work, and delegates much of your responsibility so it’s no surprise how influential they can be. The relationship you have with your manager  is honestly one of the most important things to have in your career. Their opinions reign supreme when it comes to promotions and raises. Side note: people tend to think HR makes the promotion and pay increase decisions. Although we have some input here, these things are largely business decisions that we help inform. 

A Manager’s “Real” Responsibility

Having a good manager goes a long way. I don’t think we realize how much we rely on having someone who is is fully competent in their role. I’m sure you’re aware that a manager’s responsibility is to lead the work, but they also should have a deep involvement in the close management of their team. This is not to be confused with micromanagement which can destroy a team and the morale. Managers need to be able to lead and retain their team members. They should be able to be a relative safe haven for their people to come to them with their work issues and find a path forward, removing blockers. I always admire leaders who also possess a sense of protectiveness for their team.

Additionally, your manager should be willing to go to bat and defend your team where it makes sense, but also assess where the were weaknesses leading to errors. I would also want to see them encourage diversity of thought and truly be selfless. Another responsibility for managers is to boost and maintain the employee morale. It’s incredibly difficult to make and keep everyone happy at an organization level so managers have piece of that work. It’s much more sustainable to leverage managers deeper within the organization to assist with this grand task.

Strong managers don’t just focus on the output of work or happiness, they have a particular interest in your long term career growth. You’ll find they will find opportunities to provide you stretch assignments  beyond your normal scope. They also try to find ways to develop your skillset in meaningful ways hopefully leading to promotional opportunities. In essence, your entire professional well-being should absolutely be a priority for any manager.

Obvious Poor Management 

When senior management is lackluster, it impacts the entire company, or large segments of the organization. You’ll find there are systemic or organizational-wide challenges that aren’t unique to one team, product, service, location, or anyone person. Large amounts of people are affected and you’ll probably fall into the masses with how you feel about top-down decisions. Now I could bucket that into leadership making unpopular decisions. But a bad manager is entirely different. Yes, they can have the same influence over large decisions, but the one difference is that they are also people managers.

Good people management is not a skill set innately possessed by many.

It takes a lot of work to effectively lead work forward and manage the people and personalities, simultaneously. Bad managers are partially responsible for lackluster work performance, and low employee morale. They are usually quite apparent to point out.

Obviously bad managers may:
-be unknowledgeable about the work;
-uncaring of employees’ emotional and mental well-being;
-maybe rude, disrespectful, untruthful, or difficult to work with;
-unprofessional and lacking tact
-embrace and encourages hustle culture
-justify the poor behaviors of others

bad manager
An irritated woman and her manager

Of course, this list is not fully inclusive, whatsoever.  Poor managers can also be influenced through perspective.  For example, what one person finds offensive or annoying, someone else may find refreshing or mildly annoying. In either case, it makes for an inconsistent employee experience and one that should be avoided. The benefits of obvious of bad managers are few and far in between, however, at least these are explicitly clear.

So, What About Subtle Bad Managers?

Let’s talk about when it’s less obvious you have a bad manager. I try to sometimes give these managers the benefit of the doubt as they don’t go out of their way to not excel. You may find they are actually trying really hard, but just miss the mark. For these managers, I have a lot of sympathy —sometimes. In my experience, they aren’t always aware of their misses. They usually are trying to balance the demands of work and people, but seem fall short. In my role as a strategic HR business partner, I work with these leaders to find a balance that works all the way around. We try to really hard to marry the needs of the individual with the requirements of the role, team, or company. I’m happy to say, we usually figure something out that works out well for all parties involved.

What Should You Look Out For? What Does Subtle Look Like?

Naturally everything mentioned above doesn’t begin to address the laundry list of ways this can show up. Although I am cautious not to apply blanket statements, I would anything that hinders your ability to do your best work, and isn’t direct, might qualify.

To illustrate the point here, you might find your manager:
-exhibits favoritism to other employees;
-unfairly overloads you with work;
-doesn’t allow you to utilize PTO or discourages the use of PTO although preplanned;
-micromanages without reason,
-does not foster an environment of inclusiveness, collaboration, or team;
-cares only about the work and not the people
-withholds information needed for you to do your work
-is unsupportive
-doesn’t acknowledge your mental well-being
-gaslights you or others

Again, this doesn’t begin to touch every single use case. You likely have situations that don’t come close to these, but it’s clear they aren’t strong managers and it isn’t overtly obvious. If you’re finding that it’s just hard to get work done, but can’t figure out why, I’m willing to bet there’s subtle behaviors of poor people management happening. I would also share that if you can’t pinpoint the shortcomings of your manager, I’d think about on a very tactical level some challenges you’re having and find examples you can pull from. Assuming you aren’t the only person on your team, or you’re deeply isolated from other colleagues, your experience is probably shared with others. In the rare off-chance you think you’re the only one with these challenges, I would worry about a larger issue at play.

So Now You Know What You’re Dealing With, What Should You Do?

Young African American woman drinking a coffee

That’s a definitely the next logical question to ask: What to do? Despite having a bad manager, I would hope you feel as though you can still speak candidly with them. I totally understand this may not be the case given you’re reading this blog post.

Use Performance Evaluations 

I would still want to encourage you to figure out a way to provide your manager this feedback. Performance evaluations are the perfect time to sit down and think about your experiences. Most performance reviews use bonuses as a mechanism to reward good work — including good people management. Leverage that opportunity as a means to tell their manager what they are like, good, bad, and ugly.

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Talk About the One-Offs

Another alternative is to deal with the behavior has it arises. This can be effective if the issue is small and not widespread. In tackling things as one-offs, you could potentially be addressing lots of things over time. I will admit that this approach is time consuming and draining for you. Additionally, you risk being seen as a perpetual complainer. The upside here is that it doesn’t feel so hard talking to your manager. There’s no great built-up leading to a lengthy, intimidating conversation. Just take into consideration the sheer number of things you will be addressing. I, personally, couldn’t imagine “correcting” my manager more than two times.

Call in the Heavy Hitters

Warning! Lots of people shutter at the thought of doing this, going to their manager. I spoke about this briefly above when discussing performance evaluations, but it’s worth its own call out. Performance evaluations is a busy time for everyone and not all feedback may actually land with each person. However, if your company engages in “Skip Level” or “Step Back” conversations, you instantly have another platform. For context, skip level (or step-back) conversations are meetings with your manager’s manager. The purpose of these are for them to gain an understanding of the work you’re doing, give your feedback on concerns, talk about what’s going well, and discuss their direct report aka, your manager. Ideally, they should come with an agenda, but it not, come with your own. Don’t forget to be honest and forthcoming especially if you’re trying to solve for a bad manager. Go prepared ready and willing to discuss whatever changes you’d like to see happen.

Be Direct and Kind

This one may also make you cringe, yet somehow this is the one I favor the most for subtle offenses. I previously mentioned, most manager want to be good at their jobs. They want to engage in servant leadership. Your manager should also take your feedback seriously! Going into people management it’s generally accepted the work is harder since people are in the mix. Soliciting feedback definitely should be a part of the equation. I encourage you to go ahead and be candid. Be direct in your in you meeting. Pull from relevant concrete examples of your experiences and concerns. Come willing to listen to their side and how they plan to make things better. It will take time, however the initial conversation should be the start. It’s worth a friendly reminder that in your conversation, be kind. As the adage goes, you catch more bees with honey than vinegar. This applies here as well. You may experience a lot of emotion in this conversation. If it becomes too hard, take a breather. Come back to the meeting when you feel ready. Consider writing talking points to help move the discussion along.

Understand it’s NOT You

This isn’t a tip, it’s just something you need to know. Look, bad managers exist everywhere. There’s this notion that if someone is good at their job it’ll translate into a good manager. That couldn’t be any further from the truth. Domain expertise doesn’t always manifest in other places. Please recognize this isn’t something you should carry. Assuming you’re doing your job reasonably well, lack of leadership isn’t a reflection on you or your ability. I encourage you to let this be an isolated situation that doesn’t taint your perception on what good leadership looks like.


Our organizational leaders have a special place in the workforce. When you have a good one, they are invaluable. A bad manager can destroy your mental well-being and career progression. If you take nothing away from this writing, know that your reaction to this situation is far more important.

Drop down below and let me know if you have had experience with a bad manager, and what was your reaction?

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